Teaching Writing

Billy Collins: A ‘Reader’s Poet’ Reads at NWP’s Annual Meeting

Curators notes:

Enjoy Billy Collins’ keynote at the NWP Annual Conference.


Two-time Poet Laureate Billy Collins shared his poetry, insights into writing, and many, many humorous asides at the 2009 NWP Annual Meeting's General Session.


Billy Collins’ poem “Schoolsville” conjures a town populated with all of the students he’s ever taught. At NWP’s 2009 Annual Meeting, he spoke to a different type of town, one filled with so many teachers that it would “put the fear of God in any seventh-grader,” Collins joked.

Collins’ poems decidedly don’t strike fear in readers. In fact, he’s quite at home with his readers, as he showed in A Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal, where he sits across from a reader who’s holding a spoon dripping milk.

“To write is an act of hope,” Collins said. “You hope that someone’s going to read it.”

In between readings of such poems as “The Trouble with Poetry,” “Oh My God,” and “Litany,” Collins commented on his writing process. Collins said that his poems “are not so much inspired as the product of an irritation about something,” whether it’s the relentless cries of “Marco Polo” from kids in a swimming pool when he has a headache or certain patterns of colloquial speech.

But irritation or not, “the best time to write is when you have a rather blank mind,” Collins said. Sometimes he’ll simply write a nonsense phrase on a piece of paper and see if he can make a poem out of it.

Poetry for Collins is about exploration, after all. “In poetry, the pen is not so much a recording instrument—I don’t want to play secretary to my own internal life—but I think of the pen as an instrument of discovery.”

That’s not to say that Collins is a confessional poet—in fact, he joked that “self-expression is over-rated.”

“When you’re writing you don’t need to be emotional, you need to concentrate,” said Collins.

The Poetic Tradition of Humor

Collins is known for his turns of humor, and the thousand-plus teachers in attendance certainly filled the hall with laughter. He explained that although humor was a significant part of the poetry tradition and vital for Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the metaphysical poets, it’s had a bad reputation since the Romantics.

“The Romantic poets eliminated both sex and humor from poetry and substituted landscape, which is basically a rotten deal,” said Collins.

The reason humor got a bad reputation is that it was confused with light verse, he said, which attempts to be funny from beginning to end. “The better kind of humor happens in a poem as a kind of maneuver. The poem begins serious and then it just gets silly or it starts out funny and it discovers something and then there is nothing to laugh about anymore.”

So it’s natural that Collins, a Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, finds humor in his life as a teacher, maundering through “Schoolsville”, where his population of former students “ages but never graduates.”

I forgot all their last names first and their
first names last in alphabetical order.
But the boy who always had his hand up
is an alderman and owns the haberdashery.
The girl who signed her papers in lipstick
leans against the drugstore, smoking,
brushing her hair like a machine.

Their grades are sewn into their clothes
like references to Hawthorne.
The A’s stroll along with other A’s.

This post is part of the Meet the Poets: the Writers Council and Beyond collection.